Mary Kom: A Gateway To Bollywood For North-Eastern Actors?

The past few weeks have seen a lot of hue and cry over the preference of Priyanka Chopra over female actors from Manipur or even the north-east to star in and as Mary Kom; and understandably so! People, especially from Manipur and the north-east, would have fancied an actor of Mary Kom’s ethnicity to bring the boxer’s life to silver screen. However, the non-selection of an actor of Mary Kom’s ethnicity may not have any racial reasons associated to it.

It is strange that in a film on an Olympic medallist boxer from Manipur, the protagonist is from North India. Logic dictates that this is unfair and makes little sense. A selection of an actor of Mary Kom’s ethnicity would save the preferred Bollywood actor a lot of homework to understand the culture and blend in her character. Not to mention, the filmmakers would not have to spend a major chunk of their time in trying to make the actor a look-alike of Mary Kom.

As a matter of fact, Lin Laishram, a Manipuri model, had even auditioned to play the lead role, but eventually ended up with the role of Mary Kom’s (Priyanka Chopra) friend. It is really difficult to believe that no actor from the north-east region was good enough to play the lead. Lin Laishram, for instance, has a boastful resume. A Sophia College graduate, she has worked in Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group and has even studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. Apart from her acting credentials, she is akin to modelling as well. She has modelled for Tarun Tahiliani and Shantanu-Nikhil, and has also featured in the Kingfisher calendar. A junior national champion in archery, her sporting background just completes the checklist required for this role.

There is no denying the fact that north-eastern actors face discrimination and have little or no representation in Bollywood, but a production house is a commercial entity. Mainstream cinema produces films expecting monetary returns.  Signing a new actor calls for a lot of risk, which the film-maker isn’t always willing to take. After all, the film is being made expecting some commercial success, and a debutant doesn’t promise commercial viability. Also, the protagonist’s role is difficult to master and a new entrant to Bollywood may not do complete justice to the life story of Mary Kom. Whether actors from the north-east were good enough or not, to play Mary Kom is a mere conjecture at this point. But the fact that we hardly see any films based in the north- east or see north eastern actors in mainstream Indian cinema is surely saddening.

Insurgent groups do not make it any easy for the north-eastern actors. These groups in Manipur have not only banned Hindi films in the region, but they don’t even allow Manipuri actors to star in Bollywood films. Bala Hijam was called back to Manipur when she was set to complete the shoot of Zindagi on the Rocks.

Regardless, it is a shame that mainstream Indian cinema hasn’t seen any representation from the north-east. It speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ idea of an “Indian” film. To this day, they face discrimination and struggle to establish their feet in the Hindi film industry. “India is simply not prepared to accept someone like us on the big screen – (we are) so very racially different from them”, Laishram told the Indian Express.

It is a reflection on our society. For a film to be a commercial success, it needs to have an actor with big eyes and must look “Indian” enough. “When I went for auditions, some people would tell me that I am not a quintessential Indian beauty, I don’t have big, beautiful eyes, and that I don’t look Indian enough. But I really don’t blame anyone. That’s how big, commercial movies are made”, Geetanjali Thapa, a National Award winner from Sikkim, told the Indian Express.

Mary Kom might be a far from ideal exception. A north-eastern actor may not be starring as Mary Kom, but at least the audience will see actors from the north-east on the big screen. Rajni Basumatry from Assam will play Mary’s mother and Lin Laishram, Mary’s friend. If not ideal, at least it is a start. Hopefully, the film will open the gateway for more stars from North-East India to feature in mainstream Indian cinema.

Vikas Arora

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